Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Sun 15 Aug 2010 16:23
We’ve decided to go no further south or east on Vasco da Gama, but to start sailing west towards the Greek Islands, where we expect to make our winter quarters on Crete.  There is something poetic about Jerusalem being our final easterly destination this year as it is such an exotic and awe inspiring city.

Jerusalem is built on many hills, with all the views looking down towards the old city in the centre.  The Israeli part is in the west, where there are lots of bland modern buildings, but in between are some magnificent old mansions, housing the Bible Society, the Archaeological Society of the Middle East, the Christian Mission to the Jews, and other worthy causes of the nineteenth century.

The old city is still surrounded by a wall built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1573.   The wall wraps around an almost square shape, stretches for about three miles and has a crenellated top, with slits for arrows.   It’s built of pale limestone, varies in height from 20 to 50 feet and looks remarkably clean and well preserved.  Entry to the old city is through various ancient gates, most with romantic names, such as Damascus Gate, Lion Gate, Jaffa Gate and Zion Gate although the smallest one is called Dung Gate.

I spent four days walking around, getting lost in the old city, including one day with a guide, and I still think I have only scratched the surface of what there is to see.  The city is divided into quarters, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian.  The Christian quarter is the oldest and dates back to the Christian Byzantine period, roughly 300 to 600AD.  Winding narrow streets wander up and down the hills, and the small shops sell a bewildering amount of religious souvenirs and tat.

At the heart of the Christian Quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a huge Romanesque building, originally Byzantine, but rebuilt by the Crusaders.  The Church is always crowded with pilgrims, and the tradition is that it is built over the site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and contains an elaborate shrine, built over what is claimed to be the tomb of Jesus.

The interior is dark, gloomy and airless, divided into many chapels administered by the early Christian denominations of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Copt, Syriac and Ethiopian.  Robed and bearded priests of the Orthodox sects wander through the chapels waving censers of incense.  A Franciscan friar unlocked the door of a sacristy to show us the sword used by Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, which successfully won Jerusalem from the Muslims.

The Orthodox chapels are covered with icons and hung with scores of silver and gold lanterns.  The atmosphere is not religious – it is too crowded and frantic.  The squabbles between the different sects about who owns the Church are legendary.   It was resolved by an Ottoman decree called the Status Quo, which divides the custody and entrusts a neutral Muslim keyholder to open and close the doors each day.  Of course I loved it as it was like stepping back into the Middle Ages.

I saw the oldest church in Jerusalem, the Church of St John the Baptist.  It goes back to the 5th Century, and the adjoining monastery was where the wounded knights of the First Crusade in 1099 were taken.  The knights who recovered decided to dedicate themselves to helping the sick and protecting the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.  They founded the Knights of the Hospital of St John, which later became the powerful military order of the Hospitallers.

I could not go inside as these days it belongs to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, who padlock the doors and do not allow visitors inside.  By contrast, the Franciscans, who own most of the sites associated with Jesus, welcome pilgrims to their many churches and shrines, and in the 14th Century they introduced the Via Dolorosa, which is a winding street through the Muslim and Christian quarters following what they call the 14 Stations of the Cross, the last walk of Jesus from the prison where he was held after the condemnation, to the crucifixion at Calvary.

Entry to the Muslim Quarter is through Damascus Gate, the busiest and most crowded gate into the city.  Outside stand sullen Israeli soldiers and policemen, armed with guns and truncheons.  Inside is a rambling Arabian souk like the ones in Aleppo and Damascus, but every street seems to include some treasures of Islamic architecture, such as shrines, tombs, old palaces and mosques.

The most important site is the Haram esh-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where stands the symbol of Jerusalem, the 7th century Dome of the Rock, magnificently tiled in blue, turquoise and green tiles, and topped with a golden dome (re-gilded by King Hussein of Jordan).    The 8th century El-Aqsa mosque is nearby.  It has a silver dome but the interior was destroyed in an earthquake and has been restored.   To enter the Haram esh-Sharif takes some perseverance and detective work, as it only opens twice a day for a short time.  It was built on the site of the old Jewish Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 136 AD).   Israeli guards stand outside and inside the entrance at Dung Gate, but having queued for half an hour in intense heat to get in, we were prevented from going inside the Dome of the Rock or the El-Aqsa mosque by Muslim guards.

The Israelis control all of the old city (since 1967), and armed soldiers and policeman stand around everywhere, although life carries on in the streets crowded with Christian, Arab and Jewish pilgrims, robed clergy from every part of the world and Palestinian shop owners and shoppers.  The Arab presence is grudgingly tolerated by the Israelis, but at least they allow freedom of worship to non-Jewish religions, even if they make it as hard as possible for tourists to visit the Muslim sites.

When the state of Israel was created by the U.N. in 1948, the land of Palestine was divided into two countries, one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians, with Jerusalem being administered as an international zone.   The Arabs did not agree with the U.N. plan, and the day after the British left and Israel became independent, the combined Arab armies invaded, and Israel was faced with its first war of survival.  They kept their territories, but Egypt took the Gaza Strip and Jordan grabbed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the old city, so although the Palestinian Territories were Arab, they were not Palestinian.   Israel meanwhile took the western half of Jerusalem.

Moving forward to 1967, the Arabs again massed their armies on their borders with Israel.  The Israelis moved in with a pre-emptive strike and took the Golan Heights from Syria, the Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan.  It was also their opportunity to capture all of Jerusalem.   Many souvenir shops in the Jewish quarter sell photographs of Moshe Dayan and Itzhak Rabin marching into the old city. (Our Palestinian Christian guide, Said,  introduced to us by the British Consulate, said the so-called Six Day War, in Jerusalem only lasted for about 40 minutes, as the Jordanians capitulated to the Israeli advance.)

After 1967, the Israelis who had been banned from the old city under the Jordanian rule, brought in their favourite four wheel drive vehicle, the bulldozer, and razed a lot of the old city in the Jewish quarter to the ground.  They rebuilt everything in limestone following the old pattern, but it has very little character compared to the rest of the city.  The greatest concentration of people is around the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall.  This is part of King Herod’s retaining wall built around the second Jewish Temple, and is the only part of the Temple to have survived.  (When the Romans destroyed the second Jewish Temple in 136 AD they exiled the Jews from Jerusalem.  Since that time, the Jews were a minority in Palestine until the foundation of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century in Europe encouraged Jewish immigration.  The Zionists successfully campaigned to create the state of Israel, after 2000 years of Christian or Muslim rule.)  The area around the Western Wall was also bulldozed and it’s now a large open square, entry to which is via airport-style security.  The wailing part of the wall is segregated into a large area for men and a much smaller section for women.

The Armenian quarter is the most quiet and saddest part of the old city.  It has a beautiful cathedral and a few shops selling ceramics and tiles, but the Armenian population is dwindling as Armenians emigrate and Israelis buy their houses.

Our hotel was called The Holy Land Hotel and was very charming and old-fashioned, probably dating from the British Mandate era in the 1930’s, with a facelift which happened in around 1962.  We chose it from the Internet, and by chance found ourselves in the ideal location – just outside the old city walls, and in the Arab part of town.  As we were in the Arab district, it was full of Middle Eastern character, with bazaars, a lot of street life (the streets are decorated with coloured lights to celebrate Ramadan, which starts today), and some interesting and hospitable colonial relics such as the American Colony Hotel and the Jerusalem Hotel.

We took a taxi to Bethlehem, which is on a hill near Jerusalem.  As it’s in the West Bank, we had to go through the ghastly wall, and saw how it divides Palestinian villages and towns in a seemingly arbitrary way.  On the way out of the Israeli side we were waved through without much ceremony as our taxi had Israeli plates, but on the way back we had to leave the taxi, walk past a couple of tanks which blocked the road, a phalanx of Palestinian beggars, yards of metal corridors, and three steel turnstiles manned by unhelpful armed guards.  A poster inside the Israeli part showed a smiling family on a beach and proclaimed ‘Welcome to Israel’!  The whole experience is designed to deter tourists from visiting Bethlehem, and it obviously works as our Palestinian guide said their economy is ruined, the hotels are empty and the souvenir shops have shut.  Only the awful settlements seem to be growing and flourishing, built on top of the surrounding hills.

Bethlehem seemed a charming small town.  The site everyone visits (but only on a day trip) is the Church of the Nativity, said to be where Jesus was born.  Our taxi parked in Manger Square and we met our local guide and trooped in.  I loved the church, it is so old, and the first Christian church, built on the command of the first Roman Christian Emperor, Constantine, in 326 AD.   The oldest part of the current building is from the 6th century.  It looks from the outside like a collection of domed mud huts, rebuilt in stone.  Inside is a vast bare space, lined with red and white limestone columns and roofed with a wooden hammer beam roof which our guide said had been a gift from the English king Edward (1st?) in the middle ages.  There is a fabulous Byzantine mosaic floor (discovered in 1934), displayed via a trapdoor, and colonnaded columns outside around a cloister built by the Crusaders.

The altar is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, who take it in turn to hold masses in the crypt below the altar, which is claimed to be the manger in which Jesus is born.  I have to say even my gullibility where religious sites are concerned was stretched by this one.  However, tourists streamed in and out of the little cave, taking photographs of each other, many crying and praying.

Yesterday we returned to the boat and found the coast to be sweltering and humid.   Hooray the loos are back in action (they have been off-limits for two weeks because of various problems).  We have two more days in Jerusalem at the weekend to do some filming (with a professional cameraman this time), then as soon as there’s a southerly wind we will be off again.